November 28, 2001 03:41pm
High Court Hears Internet Porn Case
by: James Vicini
(WASHINGTON, DC) -- A Bush administration lawyer defended before the U.S. Supreme Court [http://www.SupremeCourtUS.gov] on Wednesday a law aimed at shielding minors from Internet pornography, comparing the restrictions to covers on sexually explicit magazines in bookstores. But a lawyer for a leading civil liberties group said the law violated constitutional free-speech rights, resulting in self-censorship in the marketplace of ideas on the World Wide Web.
Solicitor General Theodore Olson [http://www.usdoj.gov/osg], the administration's top courtroom lawyer, described the law as a "carefully crafted solution to a desperate problem." The law has yet to be enforced because of court challenges.
The Child Online Protection Act [http://COPAcommission.org], adopted by Congress [http://www.Congress.gov] and signed by President Bill Clinton in 1998, would require commercial Web site operators to impose electronic proof-of-age systems before allowing Internet users to view material deemed harmful to minors.
Congress came up with the law in another effort to regulate access by minors to Internet pornography after the Supreme Court in 1997 struck down on free-speech grounds the Communications Decency Act of 1996. At issue during the hour-long argument was a U.S. Appeals Court [http://www.uscourts.gov] ruling that barred the law's enforcement because it relies on community standards to identify online material harmful to minors.
Olson said about 28,000 commercial pornography sites were readily available to children and that sexually explicit adult material both online and off has become an $8 billion-a-year industry. Olson said children may find pornography by accident. As an example, he said the site -- http://wwww.WhiteHouse.com -- contained offensive pornography, while the actual White House site is http://www.WhiteHouse.gov. Olson argued the government has a "compelling national interest" in preventing damage to children from exposure to Internet pornography.
Internet Porn Is Readily Available
"Pornography is readily available and accessible on the Internet," he said. But Justice Anthony Kennedy questioned whether local community or national standards applied. "I think it's a difficult question," Kennedy said, asking whether a California jury would have to consider the standards in other parts of the country before reaching a verdict. Olson said he would not object to national standards, and said Congress in adopting the law wanted "relatively constant standards" throughout the country. He compared the law to the solution adopted by 48 states that required covers for sexually explicit magazines to prevent children from viewing them in bookstores.
Ann Beeson, a New York-based attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union [http://ACLU.org], said the law forced Web site operators to set up costly screening devices involving credit cards and adult access codes or engage in self-censorship. Even with a national standard, the law violated the constitutional free-speech protections, Beeson said. "A national standard would be an exercise in futility," she told the justices. Beeson also argued against the use of local community standards for the Internet. "The least tolerant community would get to set the standards on the Web," she said. Beeson said a better alternative would be use of pornography-blocking software, and that Congress set up a commission that concluded that it be a better solution than what the law required.
The Supreme Court will consider the case and issue a ruling before the middle of next year.